Although I have always been into sport and fitness since being a child it was not until after completing my degree and leaving college that I got interested in olympic weightlifting, I was 24 years old. While I was at college, i.e. 1980 to 1984, I had taken what used to be called the BWLA Instructors course and I had been weight training since I was 16 or 17.
I used to follow bodybuilding and also was interested in athletes including weightlifters such as Dave Rigert and Alexiev – great athletes and other celebrities associated with fitness from Bruce Lee to of course ‘Arnold.’ It was during the 80’s that also saw some phenomenal weightlifting athletes on the scene like Yurik Vardanian whom you can see now on ‘You Tube’ weighing 82.5kgs snatching 182.5 kgs i.e. 401.5lbs – 28.7 stones; and clean and jerking 224kgs i.e. 493lbs – 35.2 stones and scarily making it all look easy.
Although it was a great college I was quite surprised when I went to one of the old PE Wing Colleges to do my degree, i.e. St John’s College in York, to find that there was little interest at that time in using weights to help the sports teams and athletes, whether it was rugby or anything else. Similarly when I went to Carnegie in Leeds to do a Phys ED PGCE there was some but not much more interest in using the weights other than some field athletes such as I noticed a young javelin thrower called Mick Hill.
This was also around the time that the highlights of American Football was getting great TV coverage and despite all the padding, these guys looked in great shape. It was also the time I remember watching the Australian rugby league team e.g. with the likes of Mal Meninga, visit the UK and would destroy the Great Britain rugby league team. These guys were fitter, faster, looked in great shape and very athletic. The results were not that different at this time in rugby union with the southern hemisphere being dominant.
I did not get the impression that many sports people other than field athletes and possibly some track athletes were incorporating any of the Olympic lifts into their training programmes and indeed at this time using weights was not as common place. I always felt that for sports which were dynamic , required speed and explosive power such as rugby, even rowing to a degree that I was not aware of the Olympic lifts being incorporated into training programmes, if at all.
When I went over to a division one university in the States to do my masters degree and to work as a graduate assistant teaching PE in the phys ed programme towards the end of the 80’s my eyes became wide open, firstly by the scale of facilities, but also the professionalism. I used to be the advanced weight training teacher at the university and on more than one occasion I would be in the gym and see one or two of the University’s American football players working out, including the running backs – more akin to our wingers in rugby union and league. Generally not particularly large but very fast and athletic, they would be power cleaning up to 300lbs and pretty comfortably. At this time rightly or wrongly I couldn’t envisage an England prop being able to do this.
I realise that there were many reasons for why our sports such as rugby were a bit behind the southern hemisphere, including the professionalism, nutrition and training techniques. However my experience in the States also taught me that I wasn’t in cuckoo land thinking the Olympic lifts including training exercises such as power cleans, heave jerks and power snatches and other assistant exercises such as front and back squats and pulls were very relevant to a lot of different sports. They build such good core strength and in particular genuine power i.e. a combination of speed and strength which can be vital and help to give an athlete an edge in many ways. They also require a lot of skill and technique to be applied. I think I heard that ‘the clean,’ this was in the 80’s, is the fastest movement in any Olympic sport.
During the 90’s attitudes in the UK changed and many sports you can see now incorporate this type of training. There is still a tendency to see much more emphasis on more bodybuilding exercises whether these are bicep curls or bench press which build more muscle size or machine exercises for legs whether on smith machines or leg press machines, rather than exercises which build real power and dynamism.
Below are a couple of exercises which could be a valuable addition to anyone’s fitness training routine. However it is one thing reading about what to do and something else when it comes to actually doing them. It is vital that you are coached and supervised properly and ideally that you have the right equipment to use or access to i.e. olympic weightlifting bar, olympic weights \ bumper discs and a solid non slip floor, heavy duty matting or ideally weightlifting platform.
It is also vital that before actually doing the exercises listed below that you are properly coached in related assistance exercises such as the clean and snatch pull and potentially the snatch balance. These could be written about for another day.
A BWL instructor or coach will be able to show you how to do assistance exercises leading you to able to eventually progress to do exercises such as the power clean and power snatch which are described below. It is vital that the first thing to focus on is technique, not trying to lift large weights and to fight those urges to always put more weight on the bar. For the first few months the emphasis should be on light weights and focusing on technique.
I should also stress that if you have come to the gym and are about to do these exercises remember to warm up. I’ve had so many injuries which eventually has forced me realise the virtue of warming up and doing some light stretching before you start. Similarly it is great practice to remember to warm down and do some good stretching when you have finished to maintain and built greater flexibility, another important but often ignored aspect of good all round fitness and athleticism.
If you are struggling to find a coach or instructor then check out British Weightlifting’s website: www.britishweightlifting.org or for the North of England www.northernweightlifting.com. You should be able to find a list of clubs in your region and contact details on these sites, they will be only too pleased to hear from you and to try and help.
Olympic Lifts – assistance exercises
The power clean
This is when you lift the bar and weights from the floor to your shoulders in one movement. Sounds easy doesn’t it? (not). It is called a ‘power clean’ because it does not require you to squat underneath the bar in order to get into the right receiving position. The pull \ extension has to be very strong to pull the bar high enough to get it to your shoulders.
Stand with your feet underneath the bar, toes pointing forward so when you look down at your feet the bar is across the foot and toe insertion i.e. where the big toe meets the foot. Your feet should be a comfortable distance apart i.e. at least hip width apart if not wider. Bend your legs keep your back straight and take hold of the bar. Grip the bar with at least a shoulder width apart. When you grip the bar let your fingers wrap around the outside of your thumbs to get a stronger grip. Make sure that your shoulders are over the bar and your hips are lower and that your back remains straight, look straight forward this will help keep the back flat. Your arms should be completely relaxed from the shoulders.
The pull / extension
The pull is a powerful movement which generates the speed needed to complete the clean. However it is important that you do not rush, the speed builds. Do not jerk at the bar from the floor, this will lead to problems with technique and can result in injury. Keep the arms relaxed; keep the shoulders over the bar and the back tight. Raise the bar to the knees keeping the angle of the back constant, and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. Once at the knees the hips are forced forward and up at the same time moving the body upright as fast as possible but keeping the shoulders over the bar, at the top of the pull you are on your toes reaching up with the hips forward and the shoulders finish with a shrug, you are now at your highest point.
The speed you have created gives the bar the momentum it needs to raise upwards and at this point your arms will naturally bend, they should remain completely relaxed.
The receiving position
As the bar continues upwards you are in the free zone where you are in the air. This gives the lifter time to move the feet outwards (wider than hips width) with the toes pointing at an angle away from each other to allow the hips (which are forward and high) and body under the bar at the same time the elbows are rotated under and point forward.
As you drop underneath the bar and your elbows high the bar will rest across the shoulders and collar bone and not on your hands or arms. Your arms and hands will be relaxed, the bar and all of its weight should be resting on your shoulders with your body and legs now taking all of the weight, You then stand up straight.
If you are using an Olympic bar and bumper discs on a proper weightlifting platform you can let the weight come down and just use your hands over the bar to control the bar a little coming down so the bar and weights do not bounce awkwardly, otherwise just lower the weight to your knees and then to the floor.
The power snatch
This is where you lift the bar from the floor straight over head in one movement. This is technically more challenging than the power clean, involves more muscle groups and is a very dynamic movement. Again it is called a power snatch as it requires the athlete to pull the bar high enough from the floor so that you do not have to get into the squat position as the receiving position.
The same principles apply as for the power clean. The main difference is:
- You take a much wider grip of the bar i.e. depending on your size but normally for adults much nearer towards each end of the bar on each side i.e. around the groove cut into the nerling on both sides of the bar. This hand position will allow the bar to go to the overhead position in one movement comfortably
The pull / extension
The same principles apply as for the power clean.
The receiving position
The same principles apply as for the power clean. The main differences are:
- Because the bar is finishing overhead less weight is required
- The momentum of the bar will continue upwards as you dip under the bar and the bar will come to its receiving position over your head at arms length with arms fully locked
You can see examples of good lifting technique on You Tube or on the websites listed above
Bryn Jones with assistance in describing the technique by Eddie Halstead